What follows is a piece that I was commissioned to write for an education publication called The Grade. On submission they declared that the piece was, quote, “too hot” for publication. As I said to them, that response demonstrates the piece’s thesis perfectly.
Could it be that the reason the optimism bias is so hard to overcome is that until very recently (in historical terms), lots of students WERE dismissed and ignored as "slow." Are education policy people overcorrecting for the errors of their grandparents?
There WAS a lot of human potential that was not harnessed..and whether or not you got an opportunity to go to school was highly dependent on where you lived and whether your parents could afford to feed you while you were going to school. Of my four grandparents, two did not have any formal education past the eighth grade, but all four were highly intelligent, widely read, and worked like demons to make sure their kids could go to college. In the 1970's when I was in high school, recalcitrant but very bright kids like me were often shunted into voc-tech rather than college because it was still seen as a perfectly good outcome--college wasn't seen as the one successful outcome because you could still be a contributing more-or-less middle class person with a high school education.
I am violently in agreement that there is a range of cognitive abilities from very low to very high. The "system," which I think of as the "school to career" pipeline--the idea that society will invest in a kid so that the kid will end up paying taxes and not go around breaking shit---has evolved over time. The bell curve has shifted rightward. Where a generation ago you could have a modestly comfortable life without the mental horsepower to pass high school algebra, now you can't graduate until you can get through that cognitive gateway. There was a huge freakout in the 1980's about our "failing schools" and things pivoted rather quickly from the lax standards in place when I graduated high school and what my younger stepsisters had to do. Math requirements went from 2 years to 4 years. Foreign language went from zero to two years. More academic credit requirements crowded out things like P.E, shop, and music. Things have only ratcheted up since then, and more and more kids are struggling since they are being asked to do work that they simply can't do--it's like being told to run five miles in order to graduate when you can barely huff around the track.
Maybe it's time to pivot and start freaking out about other things rather than smarts---as of last year, 78% of 18 year olds didn't meet the standard for military service due to obesity, drug use, or mental health conditions. Schools have ignored the whole person for a generation and have been fixated on academics. Now we have a bunch of fat miserable kids. Get them outside and moving around and start measuring progress on physical competence. Can they ride a bike? Can they sew on a button? Can they cook a meal? Can they run a mile without stopping? Adolescents need to develop competence in order to evolve into healthy adults. The role of public schools is to encourage that development so that our society doesn't end up with too many people going around breaking shit.
I come from a family of educators, and we have all experienced the bad effects of optimism bias. My dad was a middle-school principal for decades, and his school had to hire two paraprofessionals whose main job was to change diapers for the profoundly disabled kids who attended the school. My dad was so frustrated by the district officials’ apparent belief that these kids would obtain any benefit whatsoever from a regular public school. My mom was a special-ed teacher whose job it was to help high school kids pass a basic literacy test in order to graduate. Every year she had around thirty students who were functionally illiterate. And in my own time as a teacher in an elite private high school, I knew that some kids, in spite of having every economic advantage as well as excellent teachers (if I do say so myself) would struggle with reading comprehension and essay writing.
The saddest aspect of optimism bias is that it is misplaced. Education reformers misguidedly believe that all children can achieve in narrowly-defined academic topics--literature, math, science, expository writing--when if only they were to broaden their understanding of ability and achievement, schools could serve all kids and offer instruction in all areas where kids have talent.
I am old enough to have gone to public school in the days of academic tracking, when schools not only adapted academic classes to students’ intrinsic abilities, but also offered classes in shop and home economics and allowed kids to leave campus for apprenticeships, vocational education, and part-time jobs. These students enjoyed being able to learn about topics where they had interest and talent, and it is not bigoted want to offer students these opportunities now.
This is an especially hard pill for many to swallow because they can no longer conceive of any reason to educate kids apart from closing achievement gaps. As if absolute learning or helping kids meet their potential had no value.
Speaking in my self-appointed role as your small-l-libertarian, middle-aged mother reader, I once again agree with 95% of what you have said. But I don't understand the jump from "human not capable of doing higher mathematics" to "requires govt handouts to survive." In our small New England town, it is nearly impossible to find anyone to paint our house, fix the wood siding, inspect and fix our chimneys, fix the irrigation... When we find this kind of help, we pay through the nose for it. I estimate our house painter earned more than $100/hour, the chimney inspector did 30 minutes of work for $500. I'm not opposed to a robust safety net, but there is a lot of well-paid, hands-on work that doesn't require calculus that is going undone. Our first push should be honoring and supporting that work and helping people prepare for it.
I just re-upped my paid subscription to comment, because this one hits me where I live and I have a lot of thoughts, mostly still unprocessed because the coffee is still brewing on this rainy Sunday morning in California. My wife and I are both early-ish career teachers, and I both identify with this optimism bias frame and am confused by it. Let me take a crack at one point though- the relationship between spending and outcomes. CA spends massive amounts of money, and at the macro level you can easily compare money spent vs some performance metric like state test scores, and conclude that spending doesn't work. But on the micro level, important school functions at a school can be pitifully under-resourced. The problem, imo, is similar to what happened to that high speed train. Tons of it is wasted or misallocated. A perfect example came up at our staff professional development this week: CA just passed prop 28, which mandates that a bucket of money be spent on arts, and 80% of that funding needs to be spent on staff. Our superintendent gave a presentation saying that we now have $1 mil in ongoing funding to hire 6 VPA teachers for our population of 10,000 students (we are a charter). How pointless is that! I love arts as much as the next guy but the law basically mandates that we spend on something we had no need for, and the pool of art teachers we could even hire to fulfill our mandate is non existent anyway. So our admins will spend their time administering a useless program that will be impossible to properly implement in the short term and legal ramifications if we don't, and there are places we could really really use that money, like for more school counselors and especially social workers. So we both have plenty of money and places where money could solve an acute problem, but we get weighed down by bullshit.
I have a theory of your theory: The only reason we need this optimism bias is to save us from seeing what’s in front of us: In a contemporary American economic system in which job security (and upward, if not merely stable socioeconomic mobility) depends on having collegiate degree(s), there is a predictable proportion of students for which these academic achievements are unattainable, and so many labor-intensive manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to other countries — there will therefore predictably be a class of Americans for which dignified, stable, non-intellectual job security does not exist. Optimism bias in education is simply a recasting of the American “bootstraps” mentality, rebranded in an era in which academic tickets to the economy are the only way in!
It’s super weird to me (someone who has no investment in or background in educational policy) how we all know genes matter... except for the magical exception that genes don’t effect academic ability. I can’t imagine any other explanation for this total denial of obvious reality except for personal and professional incentives to pretend otherwise.
Thanks for being honest about it Freddie.
This post is classic deBoer. Very well written, meticulously researched, persuasive... and completely unwilling to take the next logical step. Which way does the entire educational Establishment lean politically? Would it be correct to say that an ideology has captured the narrative and continue its ineffective ways? Baltimore, DC, Chicago spend absurd amounts of money per pupil for worst results in the nation. What do all these places have in common? deBoer pretends that no one knows what works and what doesn't. It's not a question of knowing, it's a question of applying. Nowhere does the phrase "teachers' union" appear even though we all know who is really pulling strings. How one can write about educational failures and never mention that organization is beyond me.
Finally, deBoer's solution is massive redistribution. So while more money is not the answer for education, it IS the answer for a wealth gap that has existed the entire human history. A contradiction. I get it, we all have blind spots when it comes to our God. Freddie is no different.
I don’t really understand how people think about IQ. 7 million Americans have an IQ below 70 which qualifies them for SSI as they are considered intellectually disabled. 45 million Americans have an IQ below 85 and are thus unable to join the military. What do people think life is like for someone with an IQ of 77?
I saw a comment from an educator working with a child who was struggling mightily with academics and they were certain this meant the education system had failed them. My thought was why would the possibility that they have very low ability not be considered?
I am far from an expert, but I seem to recall decades of educational nostrums, all operating on premise that all we gotta do is fix this and our schools will work again.
I have always thought that education begins with us, starting with our earliest days. Schooling can polish and focus that, but it can't pour in insight like programming an AI computer.
Did not Frank Zappa teach the masses:
"Go to college if you want to to get laid.
Go to the library if you want to to get an education."
Two questions that always come up for me when I read your work on this topic (which I greatly admire):
(1) Does anyone REALLY believe that all students are capable of performing at the highest levels given the "right" interventions? I guess our old elem school principal talked like she believed that and I'm sure there are plenty of tweets to that effect, but how can anyone REALLY believe that? Especially someone who has actually worked with children? Is this just ripe for a preference cascade?
(2) What I would like to see: a goal of all students achieving proficiency at *some* level. Can we teach everyone to read at, say, the 4th grade level and do enough basic math to not get cheated when buying a used car or choosing which box of cereal to buy or signing up for a credit card? Is this a feasible goal?
I think excelling in the classroom is an end unto itself and predictive of absolutely nothing moving forward. It doesn't predict how much money you will make, how happy you will be, what kind of parent you will be, what kind of employee you will be, anything.
This all goes back to the obsession with college in this country. Get the best grades, the highest SAT scores so you can go to a great college and get a good job working for some great company. The end result of that is this elite vs working class divide that has all of us at each other's throats in this country.
I believe we need to go back to identifying skill sets and start leaning into it at a much earlier age. Call me an antique but I think there is self fulfillment in being good at something. It is a much shorter road going from good to great than it is going from bad to great.
It takes all kinds of people to make the world go round. When your toilet is overflowing or your car breaks down on the side of the road, the person who can make that problem go away is pretty damn important in that moment and you probably don't give a shit about what his English score was on the SAT.
This was a great piece and, by the way, I bought Cult of Smart when it came out and gave it for Christmas presents as well. I agree with Freddie's diagnosis but not with his fixes (particularly not letting 12 year olds leave school and yes, I read his caveats).
1. Freddie makes a similar mistake that most others do in not distinguishing between high school, middle school, and elementary school. By the high school level you simply don't see the universal case of administrators pushing the "everyone can succeed" nonsense. The approach depends on demographics. In mostly white or mostly Asian schools (say 80% or more and before you say 80% Asian is unlikely, in many areas 80% Asian is far more common than 80% white), low achieving kids are just fucked. Not enough to cause problems. Moreover, a C kid in this school is probably higher achieving than A kids in any school without those levels of majorities. In mostly black or Hispanic schools, the teachers are all committing grade fraud, because there are so few high performing kids you have to basically lie about the rest. If you don't, you'll get fired and that's *not* because the administrators believe everyone can succeed, but because graduation rates are set by the idiots. In genuinely diverse schools (no school over 40% of any demographic, which is quite rare), the teachers have the problem of keeping standards high for the strong kids but giving incentives to the weak kids, and there's too many of any one group to ignore. That's the world I live in, and it's my preferred world at this point. But we just don't get any pressure about everyone can succeed. We do get pressure about putting black and Hispanic kids in AP courses, where they often fail.
2. If we weren't a diverse country, we'd probably be more ready to accept reality. But reality, in our case, means that keeping kids who can't do the work from advancing requires us to deny advanced education to probably 60% or more of black students, and 50% or more of Hispanic students and that's just unworkable. We will never be a meritocratic society again. I'm ok with that, provided we keep some form of demonstrated ability in the mix, but we don't now. (I'm unsympathetic to the "but Asians" argument, as those who read my blog know).
3. The money we spend is spent inordinately on special ed and immigrants dropped into schools without warning or their ability to consent. After that, we spend money on wasteful interventions. What we don't spend much money on is equalizing extracurriculars and opportunities, which would be nice.
4. I flatly believe Freddy is wrong, that if we spent enough money we could equalize black performance. I think certain types of intelligence are genetic and racially distributed. For example, it's pretty clear that East Asians are rewarded more by test prep but *not* in a way that actually increases their understanding. I think it's likewise pretty clear that blacks do less well with abstractions, and improving learning might require far more concrete instruction. (Obviously, there are probably people of other races who do well on tests without learning or need more concrete instruction, just not in significant numbers.)
5. The thing to be truly despairing about is the utter obliteration of college as a signaling mechanism. It's freaking me out.
I think there is still a segment of population that fixates on the benefit of “higher education”, and since “grades” is a large factor in getting Into Institutions of higher learning, there becomes an upstream focus on this.
This fails to account for the fact that a school is a direct part of a child’s life for 7 hrs a day, 5 days a week, for 40 weeks a year. That’s 1400 hrs. Out of 6200 waking hours a year (assuming 7 hrs sleep). So school factors into less than 25% of that. Yet what happens in that other 75% of the time has a significant impact on individual grade-attainment. Hard to ignore socioeconomic factors that “school” based solutions will never touch.
There is also the “individual” aspect. (Separate from any genes and IQ discussion). Some people are just more inclined to school performance than others. And I’m basing this on the fact that not all children even in the same family (with presumably the same genetic makeup, exposed to the same socioeconomic environment) will have the same grade attainment. This level of individual variability is not well accessed by universal average GPA.
I don’t know how to measure such a thing….but I’d be much more interested in seeing an education system that helps kids attain their individual maximal potential, whatever that potential happens to be; rather than insisting that all kids must strive for the identical end goal, and that the inability to do so constitutes some sort of failure.
"I believe that we can change large group disparities in education (such as the racial achievement gap) by addressing major socioeconomic inequalities through government policy."
LOL, stop it, you're killing me.
How might artificial intelligence help more people understand this optimism bias and support their own achievement by infiltrating and exposing "the Cult of Smart?" I asked GPT-4 to translate your piece to the 600 Lexile level and then to summarize it in about 300 words. Following is the summary it provided. Many education policy changes require public buy-in. Will AI accelerate that buy-in?
One thing that's interesting in how GPT-4 handled your piece is that it tended to inject the bias you discuss into its text, presumably because the texts in its system tend to reflect that bias. Nevertheless, it's interesting to read its take. Here's its 300-word summary after my Lexile level adjustment query:
Optimism bias in education can lead to unrealistic expectations and the belief that certain reforms will be successful even when evidence shows otherwise. This bias is often fueled by the desire of professionals in the field to present positive outcomes and stories. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the limitations and challenges of education in order to develop effective solutions.
Five common beliefs reflecting optimism bias in education are: 1) All students can flourish academically, and any failures are due to errors or injustice; 2) No academic standard is unachievable for any student; 3) Criticisms of these expectations are considered excuse-making or bigotry; 4) Proposed interventions to improve student performance are always assumed effective, despite conflicting evidence; 5) Those who disagree with these beliefs are considered to hate children and support inequality.
Rather than solely focusing on education as a means to solve economic and social issues, alternative approaches like redistributive social safety nets should be considered. Although education is important, it is essential to recognize that schools and educators have limitations, and other factors like poverty and personal circumstances play significant roles in a student's ability to learn.
Being realistic about education involves understanding its limitations and focusing on evidence-based solutions. By doing so, we can work towards finding better ways to support both students and teachers in their quest for success.